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Genetic testing reveals awkward truth about Xinjiang’s famous mummies

(AFP) / 19 April 2005

URUMQI, China - After years of controversy and political intrigue, archaeologists using genetic testing have proven that Caucasians roamed China’s Tarim Basin 1,000 years before East Asian people arrived.

The research, which the Chinese government has appeared to have delayed making public out of concerns of fueling Uighur Muslim separatism in its western-most Xinjiang region, is based on a cache of ancient dried-out corpses that have been found around the Tarim Basin in recent decades.

“It is unfortunate that the issue has been so politicized because it has created a lot of difficulties,” Victor Mair, a specialist in the ancient corpses and co-author of “Mummies of the Tarim Basin”, told AFP.

“It would be better for everyone to approach this from a purely scientific and historical perspective.”

The discoveries in the 1980s of the undisturbed 4,000-year-old ”Beauty of Loulan” and the younger 3,000-year-old body of the ”Charchan Man” are legendary in world archaeological circles for the fine state of their preservation and for the wealth of knowledge they bring to modern research.

New findings and discoveries

In historic and scientific circles the discoveries along the ancient Silk Road were on a par with finding the Egyptian mummies.

But China’s concern over its rule in restive Xinjiang has widely been perceived as impeding faster research into them and greater publicity of the findings.

The desiccated corpses, which avoided natural decomposition due to the dry atmosphere and alkaline soils in the Tarim Basin, have not only given scientists a look into their physical biologies, but their clothes, tools and burial rituals have given historians a glimpse into life in the Bronze Age.

Mair, who played a pivotal role in bringing the discoveries to Western scholars in the 1990s, has worked tirelessly to get Chinese approval to take samples out of China for definitive genetic testing.

One expedition in recent years succeeded in collecting 52 samples with the aide of Chinese researchers, but later Mair’s hosts had a change of heart and only let five of them out of the country.

“I spent six months in Sweden last year doing nothing but genetic research,” Mair said from his home in the United States where he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

“My research has shown that in the second millennium BC, the oldest mummies, like the Loulan Beauty, were the earliest settlers in the Tarim Basin.

“From the evidence available, we have found that during the first 1,000 years after the Loulan Beauty, the only settlers in the Tarim Basin were Caucasoid.”

East Asian peoples only began showing up in the eastern portions of the Tarim Basin about 3,000 years ago, Mair said, while the Uighur peoples arrived after the collapse of the Orkon Uighur Kingdom, largely based in modern day Mongolia, around the year 842.

“Modern DNA and ancient DNA show that Uighurs, Kazaks, Krygyzs, the peoples of Central Asia are all mixed Caucasian and East Asian. The modern and ancient DNA tell the same story,” he said.

Mair hopes to publish his new findings in the coming months.

China has only allowed the genetic studies in the last few years, with a 2004 study carried out by Jilin University also finding that the mummies’ DNA had Europoid genes, further proving that the earliest settlers of Western China were not East Asians.

Mixed opinions…

In the preface to the 2002 book, “Ancient Corpses of Xinjiang,” written by Chinese archeologist Wang Huabing, the Chinese historian and Sanskrit specialist Ji Xianlin soundly denounced the use of the mummies by Uighur separatists as proof that Xinjiang should not belong to China.

“What has stirred up the most excitement in academic circles, both in the East and the West, is the fact that the ancient corpses of “white (Caucasoid/Europid) people’ have been excavated,” Jin wrote.

“However, within China a small group of ethnic separatists have taken advantage of this opportunity to stir up trouble and are acting like buffoons, (styling) themselves the descendants of these ancient “white people’ with the aim of dividing the motherland.”

Further on, in an apparent swipe at the government’s lack of eagerness to acknowledge the science and publicize it to the world, Ji wrote, “a scientist may not distort facts for political reasons, religious reasons, or any other reason”.

Meanwhile, Yingpan Man, a nearly perfectly preserved 2,000-year-old Caucasoid mummy, was only this month allowed to leave China for the first time, and is being displayed at the Tokyo Edo Museum.

The Yingpan Man, discovered in 1995 in the region that bears his name, has been seen as the best preserved of all the undisturbed mummies that have so far been found.

Yingpan Man not only had a gold foil death mask -- a Greek tradition -- covering his blonde bearded face, but also wore elaborate golden embroidered red and maroon garments with seemingly Western European designs.

His nearly 2.00 meter (six-foot, six-inch) long body is the tallest of all the mummies found so far and the clothes and artifacts discovered in the surrounding tombs suggest the highest level of Caucasoid civilization in the ancient Tarim Basin region.

When the Yingpan Man returns from Tokyo to Urumqi where he has long been kept out of public eye, he is expected to be finally put on display when the new Xinjiang Museum opens this year.

China has hundreds of the mummies in various degrees of dessication and decomposition, including the prominent Han Chinese warrior Zhang Xiong and other Uighur mummies.

However, only a dozen or so are on permanent display in a makeshift building until the new museum is completed.

Photo Courtesy: pbs.org

 
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